British historian and novelist Saul David reviews the book “The Barefoot Emperor: An Ethiopian Tragedy” by Philip Marsden. This story was published on Telegraph in 14 December 2017 with a title, “’Mad king Tewodros’ of Abyssinia”
(Telegraph)―The life story of Emperor Tewodros II of Abyssinia is indeed a tragedy, and few are better qualified to tell it than Philip Marsden, one of our finest travel writers, who first visited the region when the Soviet-backed Colonel Mengistu held sway in the early 1980s.
The impression he gained of Tewodros at the time was of ‘a mad dog let loose, a sort of black reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible’. But when he returned to the post-Soviet Ethiopia of the 1990s he was astonished to discover a universally positive opinion of the 19th-century dictator. An old friend explained: ‘Without him there would be no modern Ethiopia. Period.’
The ‘heroification’ of ‘mad King Theodore’ by Ethiopian intellectuals was necessary, Marsden discovered, because foreign authors had so tarnished his image. This book is his attempt to locate, ‘somewhere between the cult of Tewodros and its bloodless deconstruction’, the true story of this remarkable man.
Born Kassa Hailu in about 1820, the son of a provincial chief who died when he was young, Tewodros lived for a time as a common outlaw. But thanks to his ‘strength with the spear, his skills as a horseman, his courage and luck’ he attracted a band of followers which grew, over the years, into an invincible army. In 1853 he met and defeated the numerically superior force of his father-in-law, Emperor Ras Ali, and two years later was crowned Tewodros II, King of Kings.
Britain’s interest in 19th-century Abyssinia was chiefly strategic – to protect the route to India from the French – and in 1847 they had appointed Walter Plowden as Consul to the Ottoman port of Massawa. Plowden approved of Tewodros’s liberal credentials – he had already abolished the slave trade and spoken out against battlefield mutilations – and saw in his succession the chance to establish diplomatic relations. Tewodros demurred. ‘I cannot’, he told Plowden, ‘allow anyone in my territory, consul or not, to be free from my jurisdiction.’
The outset of his reign promised much. ‘He wanted a modern state, a Christian state,’ writes Marsden, ‘without slavery, without feudal fiefdoms, defended by a standing army equipped with up-to-date weapons. More than anything he wanted a Church that did not hold the people in thrall, nor dictate to the Crown.’
But his internal and external enemies were many, and in 1857 he made his first foray into foreign relations by writing a letter of ‘friendship’ to Queen Victoria. It received no reply. The Indian Mutiny ‘had revealed the strange truth that native peoples did not always appreciate the presence of the British’. Ethiopia and Tewodros were seen as ‘risk without profit’.
Plowden was murdered by rebels, and in 1862 his successor, Charles Cameron, sent off a second letter from Tewodros to Queen Victoria, requesting Britain’s support in his war against the Egyptians. The tardy reply from the Foreign Office was brief: ‘It is not desirable for Her Majesty’s Agents to meddle in the affairs of Abyssinia.’
Tewodros, long the victim of violent mood swings (he once executed 7,000 prisoners of war), was infuriated by this dismissive response. In early 1864, he imprisoned Cameron and a motley crew of European missionaries and artisans.
All attempts to secure the prisoners’ release failed. New envoys were dispatched and they, too, were put in chains. Finally the British government lost patience and in the summer of 1867 issued an ultimatum: release the prisoners within three months or face the consequences. Tewodros refused. The question is: why?
Marsden provides a convincing answer: ‘He couldn’t help but see the threatened invasion as an opportunity…His enemies would unite with him against the invader. He would strike a deal with the British – get them to flush out the last resistance to him. Then, magnanimously, he would release the prisoners.’
The story of how Sir Robert Napier landed and then moved an army of 5,000 fighting men across 300 miles of rugged, roadless terrain is beautifully told; as is the tale of Tewodros’s own epic march from his capital at Debre Tabor to the mountain stronghold of Meqdela, blasting a road across mountains and gorges so that he could move his heavy ordnance. Tewodros narrowly won the race, but it was all in vain.
On Good Friday 1868, in the valley below Meqdela, Tewodros’s muzzle-loading muskets, swords and home-produced artillery were no match for Napier’s breech-loading rifles and steel cannon. The Abyssinians lost 2,200 men, the British just 20. Incredibly, Tewodros chose to release the prisoners unharmed and on Easter Monday, as the British stormed his fortress, he shot himself.
Marsden has combined his outstanding skills as a travel writer – his intimate knowledge of a foreign clime, his instinctive sympathy for a lost culture, his wonderfully evocative, almost poetic, prose style – with the research talents of a first-rate sleuth to produce a quite spellbinding work of historical biography.
It was, he concludes, the dramatic and defiant nature of King Tewodros’ death that raised him to the status of national icon. [Yet, unlike Napier in London, there is no bronze statue to commemorate Tewodros in Addis Ababa. ‘The failures of his reign’, writes Marsden, ‘and his violence make the man himself too ambiguous for a true bronze hero.’]*
* Note to the editor: While this story was published on Telegraph on 2007, Ethiopia has already erected two statues of King Tewodros II in two different cities of Amhara Regional State of the country. One statue of King Tewodros II was unveiled in 2012 in Gondar City, some 665 km from the capital Addis Ababa whereas the other statue of King Tewodros II was inaugurated in early February 2017 in the Debre Tabor City, about 590 km from Addis Ababa.